Here we are — another week, another Wall Street Journal story about a nonconformist property owner irking neighbors and keeping building code officials busy all in the name of, well, keeping it real.
Last week, it was noted buckskin fashion enthusiast Eustace Conway and his battle to save his off-the-grid assemblage of primitive (read: very historically accurate) cabins after an invasive, unannounced visit from the code police. Today, we move from the Appalachian outpost of Boone, N.C., to the sleepy French village of St.-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or where the issue isn’t so much that the offending individual, Thierry Ehrmann, is refusing to modernize his 17th century abode. Rather, Ehrmann has renovated his historic property (without consent) in a way that’s decidedly incongruous with the vernacular architecture of the area — a vernacular that’s quite literally set in stone.
Ehrmann, a wealthy entrepreneur and sculptor, is the driving force behind a tourist-snaring, open-air contemporary art museum that has consumed his property. What has the residents of this provincial outpost all worked up isn't so much the existence of the al fresco arts center itself but what it displays: a giant silver skull, a crashed helicopter, a model of the steel skeleton of the World Trade Center, an oil platform, a wrecked oil truck, and rather striking black-and-white portraits of George W. Bush, Osama Bin Laden, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad along with numerous popes, terrorists and assorted international unsavories. The water in the swimming pool has been tinted blood red. And then there were the reports of a naked man "covered with wheat flour and wearing a zombielike mask” straddling the outer wall of the property in the summer of 2011.
Dubbed as a "Banksy image come to life" and "a symbol of resistance against our institutionalized Orwellian art world," by CVLT Nation, from what I've seen, Ehrmann's property resembles a terrifying post-apocalyptic junkyard. I assume that this is exactly what he was going for.
Ehrmann, 50, started the conversion of his home into the destruction-centric museum, the Abode of Chaos, following the 9/11 attacks, although the project dates back to 1999 when it took on more of a religious slant. “That's when the world started to fall apart. It marked the end of the Western supremacy,” Ehrmann tells the Journal.
Before turning his attention to the curation of the Abode of Chaos, Ehrmann had been a well-liked — albeit flashy — fixture around town. Village Mayor Françoise Revel notes that despite his penchant for wearing only black and enthusiasm for alchemy, he was regarded as a “charming man.”
Although he may have managed to maintain a soupçon of charm, Ehrmann has found himself embroiled in a heated, drawn-out legal battle that originated in 2004 when former Mayor Pierre Dumont filed a lawsuit ordering him to restore his code-breaking property back to its non-offensive 17th century splendor. Dumont, speaking to the New York Times in 2006, had this to say of the Ehrmann home: "It’s humanly intolerable, ugly, dramatic, with its images of destruction. Whatever you think, for me it’s not art, it’s a provocation.”
After five years of courtroom drama, the verdict was finalized in 2009 when France's highest court, the Cour de Cassation, rejected Ehrmann’s appeal that village building codes shouldn’t be applied to works of art. (Much of the work found at the Abode of Chaos is Ehrmann's own, although he also displays the work of other artists, both emerging and established). Ehrmann has yet to comply with the 2009 ruling stating that he must revert his home to its pre-Abode of Chaos state, prompting prosecutors with the appeals court in nearby Grenoble to recommend an increase in the initial daily penalty of €75 to €1,500 (about $97 to nearly $1,950). The court will rule on the recently proposed penalty bump in May.
As for Ehrmann’s neighbors, it appears that they’ve resorted to top-notch sarcasm — and antidepressants — in dealing with living next to a compound that looks more like a war zone. Says neighbor Pascal Floris, who complains of non-stop welding, hammering, chain-sawing, and fluorescent tubes that illuminate the museum at night: “I am incredibly lucky. There is but one Thierry Ehrmann on this planet, and he lives right outside my window."
A beleaguered Revel, who took up the inherited legal battle when Dumont retired, explains that she has fielded numerous complaints from village parents who are worried about the the effect Ehrmann's outré artistic output may have on their children. According to the Journal, “parents cite the nude man, the general appearance of the house, the skulls and apocalyptic messages on the walls in explaining their concern.” That would do it.
And then there's an issue of property values. Neighbors such as Boris Perrodon have attempted to move away but found themselves in a sticky situation as Ehrmann’s property has (allegedly) caused the worth of their homes to drop. Perrodon claims that he didn't encounter a single offer when he attempted to sell. Says local real estate agent Pascal Paysant: “Perhaps we lack artistic flair, but the fact is this house depreciates real estate value in the town.”
Ehrmann, a practicing Freemason, denies that the Abode of Chaos has negatively affected property values in the village and claims that, with the exception of a few neighbors, the residents of St.-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or have not gone out of their way to give him a hard time about the museum and the art contained within in. I’m guessing it’s because because they’re too busy sharpening their pitchforks.
Related on MNN: Though shalt not block thy neighbor's view